The House Education and Labor Committee yesterday approved a bill to improve safety conditions for miners and expand the powers of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). The bill is a response to the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners in April.
The bill strengthens MSHA’s hand by enabling the agency to more easily place mines on its pattern-of-violations list, according to the committee. Currently, MSHA often cannot place dangerous mines on the list, which prompts greater scrutiny, because the criteria is too difficult to meet, MSHA lacks adequate resources, and/or the mines delay the process by appealing citations.
The bill would also raise civil and criminal penalty limits for delinquent mines.
But amid opposition from the mining industry and Congressional Republicans, other aspects of the bill were weakened. Committee Chairman George Miller (CA) abandoned plans to impose a simpler but more encompassing definition of “significant and substantial violation.” Department of Labor officials had said a new definition could help ensure miners are protected from dangerous conditions and reduce confusion for mining operators.
The Committee also decided to limit the scope of mines covered under the bill. “It now applies only to underground coal mines and other underground mines in which explosive gases can be found – leaving the laws governing surface mines and underground mines of most minerals untouched,” according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The bill also expands whistleblower protections for all workers, not just miners. Republicans vociferously opposed the whistleblower provision and attempted strip it, unsuccessfully.
The bill passed the committee by a 30-17 vote entirely along party lines.
Miller hopes the House will consider the bill quickly, but full passage is a long shot. A bill has yet to be introduced in the Senate where an already crowded legislative calendar has little room for additional priorities.